Op-ed on Pathologizing the Biology of Women

Over the weekend, my phone buzzed with calls of alarm from three old friends. They are each accomplished women and looked up to within their own spheres, the kind of women I call powerful, but each of them a bit unsure in their own minds.

In a world that expects women, particularly this type, to be bright, happy, and confident, it’s hard to confide in anyone. Ironically, after being taken down by the media and indicted on a conspiracy charge from the subsequent FBI investigation, I am now the safe haven for women who can no longer hold it together. My closest female friendships began in these messy corners from which we surreally navigate a new path. We are “other” and clearly see that the masculine structures we once succeeded in are, in fact, the “other” in the culture we share as women.

That day, each woman spoke of being overwhelmed by it all, rendering them paralyzed, too powerless to deviate from the carefully crafted lives they made, conforming to belief systems that now seemed irrelevant. With the first, I thought, “Ah, ego death!” By the third, I realized I needed to delete the word ego from that thought. My friends wanted out. One of my three friends has a life revolving around her spiritual practice. After decades emulating the men who taught her, she has lost her own nature in the pursuit of finding herself. Why go on if you don’t even know the person you’re trying to save?

By many metrics, women have more power and self-determination than ever. For the past dozen years, women have earned more doctoral degrees than men; and female CEOs lead GM, Walgreens, Citigroup, and Oracle. We’ve changed the country’s work landscape, yet we continue to follow the male path to success —competitive, detached, and without the embrace of community or passion for one’s work. “We have become the men we wanted to marry.” Gloria Steinem once noted.

Feminism’s great moments took place sixty years ago with the publication of Betty Friedan’s feminist classic, The Feminine Mystique and the establishment of a national organization devoted to the rights of women, NOW, the National Organization for Women, founded by a collective of which Friedan and Steinem were part. NOW set the stage for the Women’s Rights movement. Limitations for women fell away as expectations expanded, but to what end? Psychologist Naomi Ellemers notes, “the way to succeed in the workplace is to make sure that people realize they are not like other women.” Or as tech CEO Marissa Mayer noticed “I’m not really a woman at Google; I’m a geek at Google.”

And we’re seeing the impact: 60% of working women reported becoming more lonely with career advancement; 50% turned down jobs or promotions because of the negative impact on their personal lives; and it jumps to 66% amongst those ranked as senior-level. In the C-Suite, 92% report feeling lonely at work, as well as using drugs, alcohol, and compulsive spending as coping mechanisms. The higher we climb, the more we ideate leaping from those highest rungs. The dissonance between what we say we want and how we feel when we get it is profound.

Women are diagnosed with depression, trauma, and anxiety at twice the rate of men. Roughly 8% of women are diagnosed with PTSD, compared to 15% for war veterans. But more insidious are the effects of psychological diagnosis which takes a temporary maladaptive behavior and labels it a defining pathology. Psychiatry has a limited understanding of the biological basis of these diagnoses and quickly prescribed psychotropics to take the edge off. This despite the University College of London’s widely covered 2022 study casting doubt on the primary mode of changing a mood –by altering brain chemistry. “Mental illness is always diagnosed based on some sort of social conflict. When people do something that others find objectionable, they can be diagnosed as mentally ill. If the person doing the diagnosing is more powerful than the person diagnosed, then there is trouble,” according to Dr. Jeffery Schaler, psychologist and professor at American University The haste of authority wielded by the field is so masculine as to scare most women into submission. His mentor, Dr. Thomas Szasz, was troubled when his field focused on pathologizing the most vulnerable groups: the elderly, children, and the incarcerated whose diagnoses were no different than theories that ascribed moods to the “humors,” where something is simply felt.

Malidoma Somé, a writer and indigenous Dagara spiritual leader in Burkina Faso, said “In Dagara, when somebody ‘goes nuts,’ ‘goes crazy,’ people are really happy. They realize, ‘We’re going to have another healer.’” In Dagara culture, these experiences become an opportunity to connect with the spiritual self and the community through ritual work. Western patients come for treatment as well. One had a psychotic break with hallucinations. Some said, “After eight months, they had become quite normal, and participated in training rituals. The renaissance of alternative cures, from “plant medicine” to the clinical successes of psilocybin and MDMA treatments at NYU and John Hopkins show great hope. The distinction between the Western perspective and their view is stunning.

Life and success for women have become defined within the framework of masculine institutions and we have trained ourselves to squeeze into those boxes. We have taken on the masculine perspective as the defining lens of experience, isolating and pathologizing the biological and emotional experiences that are unique to women as “abnormal.”

Erica Jong, another figurehead of second-wave feminism, put words to the incongruity of today’s Feminism. “Just as the watchword of my generation was freedom, that of my daughter’s generation seems to be control.” The truth is that you can control your way to freedom and happiness with as much success as you can fight your way to peace, whether the war is within or without. Rather than becoming liberated to express who we are as women, women have cut themselves off from who and what we naturally are. We have marched ourselves from one gilded cage to another, praying that it keeps us safe from the wildness within us. The power that begs to be expressed through our beings is inherently feminine and it is not a matter of taking on the roles and characteristics of men, but instead expressing our unique power.

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